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Turtles in Time’s arcade version remains a benchmark for pixel art perfection

While the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game was immensely popular with good reason, it doesn’t take much exploration of The Cowabunga Collection to determine that almost every follow-up bettered it in some way  including, as we’ve talked about, the NES port. Its 1991 follow-up for arcades, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, was no exception.

Most people are likely familiar with Turtles in Time via its excellent 1992 SNES port, which we’ll come to in due course, but the arcade game offers a number of distinct elements that make it worth exploring separately to its console counterpart. Most obvious among these is the fact that, like the original Turtles arcade game, it supports four simultaneous players rather than the two of the SNES version, but there are other significant differences also.

But let’s rewind for a moment and talk about this game in general, on the offchance someone reading this hasn’t encountered Turtles in Time before. It’s a fairly predictable affair, plot-wise: Shredder and Krang are up to no good  in this case they’ve stolen the Statue of Liberty for some reason that is never made entirely clear  and it’s up to the Turtles to go kick some shell.

But there’s a twist, as the game’s name suggests: after reaching a certain point in the game (the end of the “Sewer Surfin’” level in the arcade version), Shredder appears and casts the Turtles into a time warp, forcing them to fight their way back to the time Shredder and Krang occupy (via prehistoric times, the golden age of piracy on the high seas and the Wild West) before giving them a good kicking and retrieving the Statue of Liberty.

The basic mechanics of Turtles in Time are similar to the original arcade game, in that there is just a single attack button and a jump button to go along with the 8-way joystick. This time around, though, there are a lot more possible moves that the Turtles can perform with various combinations of button presses and stick movements. These additional moves, such as the ability to run and shoulder tackle enemies, are in keeping with how the beat ’em up genre gradually developed in the early ’90s.

Consequently, if you’re more accustomed to later beat ’em ups or those that follow the Final Fight mould, Turtles in Time will likely feel a lot more comfortable to play than the original arcade game. A more conventional “grapple and throw” mechanic is available, for example  though with the slight difference that you need to hitstun an enemy first rather than simply walking into them as in many other games  which occasionally triggers the delightful occurrence of the Turtles throwing enemies “out” of the screen towards the player.

There are also various forms of jump and slide attack available, and mastering the various ways in which it’s possible to attack and avoid enemy attacks is essential if you want to make it through Turtles in Time using minimal credits. Once again, though, adding credits to Turtles in Time simply increases the number of lives you have rather than being treated as a distinct attempt at the game, so when playing with others you can easily credit-feed your way to the end and compete for the best score.

In more subtle touches, there’s a much better feel of impact with the attacks in Turtles of Time, with some meaty, crunchy kung fu movie-style samples accompanying successful hits. The Turtles are also much more talkative, often coming out with one-liners to accompany various happenings on screen — usually taking damage from various unusual circumstances, such as falling down a pit or stubbing their toe on a spiked ball.

In fact, there’s a lot more speech in general  all dialogue in the arcade version of Turtles in Time is delivered exclusively through good quality digitised speech instead of text, though unfortunately there are no subtitles. Thankfully, when playing the game via the Cowabunga Collection you likely won’t have the noisy ambience of an arcade surrounding you, so you can actually hear what people are saying!

Probably the best thing about the arcade version of Turtles in Time, though, is how damn good it looks. While it’s still low-resolution by modern standards, this is a prime example of pixel art at its absolute finest. Characters have lots of frames of animation, with the Turtles in particular having an astonishing number of different responses to taking damage and being attacked, and the whole game animates beautifully smoothly and fluidly.

The backgrounds, too, are gorgeous, evoking the colourful and cheerful yet sinister feel of the animated series and comics perfectly, and every character you encounter is immediately recognisable to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the franchise. Those who are super-fans will appreciate some of the more subtle, obscure cameos that show up, also  this really is a game that has obviously been designed by people who are familiar with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and have great affection for it.

There’s a reason why Konami’s beat ’em ups from the early ’90s are held in such high esteem despite games from other developers arguably having a greater influence on the mechanics and execution of the genre, and it’s this: they made excellent use of their licences, and never felt like cheap cash-ins. Turtles in Time in particular felt like the closest thing you were going to get to playing a fully interactive Turtles episode in 1991  none of that “interactive cartoon” Laser Disc rubbish  and people loved it for that. The fact it also happened to be a really solid, enjoyable game was just the icing on the cake.

The arcade version of Turtles in Time is definitely worth playing, then  but, as we’ve previously noted, a lot of people actually hold the SNES version in even higher esteem than its source material. So we’ll take a look at that next time, and see if that’s an attitude still worth holding in 2022, now we have easy access to both versions via the Cowabunga Collection.

About Zohaib Boorat

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